The pandemic has forced major changes in the way federal agencies serve customers.

In a matter of weeks during the month of March, tens of thousands of call center operators and customer service professionals working on behalf of the government were uprooted from the familiar brick-and-mortar facilities that have long served citizens to even more familiar confines: their homes.

The displacement—driven by coronavirus’ rampant spread across the country, forcing most offices to close—may sound like a trivial event to the uninitiated, but those in the call center trenches understand what a massive undertaking it was, and what the major ramifications might be.

“Our main concern at the time was that we couldn’t let service levels stall because demand for citizen services was so high,” Tom Romeo, president and general manager for Maximus Federal, told Nextgov.

Nowhere across government was the demand higher than at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Maximus holds important call center and business process contracts with the IRS, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the National Weather Service and an assortment of other agencies. But as federal facilities nationwide closed and coronavirus stirred public panic, Romeo said calls to the CDC “increased 100-fold,” an impossible burden for the 50 call agents normally assigned for the agency.

“Not only did we have to move all the people we had, we had to ramp up the staff and hire new people,” Romeo said. “Just getting new equipment became a huge challenge. It took a huge effort.”

Overall, the company turned to cloud computing to further advance its remote employees’ capabilities, allowing 9,000 remote call center staff to address calls in Amazon Web Services’ secure cloud computing environment.

Staffing up during a pandemic presented its own challenges. Romeo said the company strategized to hire people with their own internet-enabled computers, but while many people own those, far fewer own viable USB-enabled headsets required for high-quality audio calls. Hardware, including laptops, were in short supply and high demand, and the company’s IT help desk was further challenged to ensure hundreds of new hires procured and installed the proper customer service software required to securely field calls. (The software is of the utmost importance, Romeo said, because it locks a machine’s other applications so that secure conversations can take place without privacy concerns).

In a matter of weeks, Romeo said the company remotely hired up hundreds of new call center professionals, trained them virtually and in many cases, enabled them to use their own equipment. Romeo said Maximus Federal expanded the number of call center agents answering calls for the CDC to 600.

The Future for Federal Contact Center Employees Might Look Like Home

Despite the challenges, Romeo said the temporary shuttering of government contact centers offers unique opportunities—and perhaps a glimpse at the future of government service delivery.

“From our perspective, the real question comes down to security and privacy concerns that led to the fact that [government] has always wanted this work done in a facility where people could be physically overseen,” said Romeo, noting that in most contact centers, employees aren’t allowed to bring paper or a pen to their desks for fear of copying or recording private data or sensitive records. Those records can include a caller’s personal information or records contained in a government database. “With COVID-19, rules had to be relaxed, and I think a lot of the projects—or at least a share of the projects—will never come back to a physical site because so far, it’s worked fine and we haven’t seen the security issues they worried about.”

The relaxation of geographic proximity rules for new hires also opens up the ability for contact center providers to hire anywhere, expanding the pool of potential candidates.

“It opens up a huge opportunity for hiring and flexible workforce scheduling,” said Martha Dorris, founder of Dorris Consulting International and former customer experience leader at the General Services Administration. Dorris called contact centers “the hub of government’s digital services” and said they should manage an agency’s knowledge base and deliver content through various channels, including phone calls, text messages and social media accounts. But all these activities don’t need to occur within the confines of a federal office building—or even within reasonable driving distance of one—if they can be done with adequate security and privacy elsewhere. Dorris said the pandemic may open the government’s doors to a hybrid contact center model where employees can securely work from home, potentially creating jobs in rural America and elsewhere.

“It is a leadership management challenge and people will have to learn to create teams that still feel like they’re engaging in person,” Dorris said.

GSA and the Office of Management and Budget have touted the importance of contact centers, making them one of a few focus areas for the Trump Administration’s Centers of Excellence initiative. The initiative has expanded into nine agency partnerships, and allows partnering agencies to quickly contract for call center services through Deloitte Consulting, Digital Management, HighPoint Digital, ICF Incorporated, McKinsey & Company, and Slalom.

‘The virtual experience is the customer experience now.’

The millions of federal employees, government contractors and non-essential Americans now working from home have altered not only how agencies engage those citizens seeking services but may have fundamentally altered government service delivery all together. Perhaps irrevocably so, said Justin Herman, who heads public sector business for California-based Twilio, which specializes in remote contact centers.

Herman, who evangelized digital government and emerging technologies for years as a civil servant, called the COVID-19 pandemic a “pivotal moment” in the advancement of digital public service delivery. Herman pointed to “fast-moving” agencies like the Veterans Affairs Department, which ramped up telehealth capabilities tenfold, delivering more than 100,000 telehealth visits in May for veterans. Like many corporations, Herman said courts across the nation have increased the use of video-conferencing tools, providing telejustice, while municipalities and states have shifted to delivering a virtual omnichannel—or more personalized—experience.

As an example, a city resident could choose how they’d like to receive information—perhaps via a text, email or phone call—and then receive it on the platform they desire from a trusted source, like a city’s 311 system. A mature organization may also employ chatbots on various platforms, like websites or applications, offering another means of communication for users. Herman said most federal agencies stand to benefit from offering a robust set of remote digital services, though bureaucratic hurdles may leave states and cities to pave the way for digital service innovation. But, Herman said, “The fact is that this isn’t going away,” even if the pandemic subsides in the near future.

“Once people are able to experience what a fully enabled digital government is, why would they want to go back?” Herman said. “Standing in lines, waiting on hold for hours, getting blasted with information instead of personalized information tailored for you? The virtual experience is the customer experience now. It’s a critical need.”